Three games, three superlative performances from Julio Jones, three wins. With Sunday's effort, the Atlanta Falcons superstar has staked his claim on not only being the best wide receiver in today's NFL, but also on the NFL's Most Valuable Player.
In a stunning comeback win over the Dallas Cowboys, Jones racked up 12 catches for 164 yards and two touchdowns. Those scores came as part of a stunning 25-unanswered-point run that closed the game out for the Falcons (and then some). Combined with his output in the first two weeks, Jones has compiled 34 catches, 440 yards and four touchdowns.
If he sticks it to the rest of the NFL like he's been sticking it to the NFC East, Jones will finish with an obscene 181 catches, 2,346 yards and 21 touchdowns; the first two numbers would shatter current NFL records.
It's not just production, though: Jones looks unstoppable and feels untouchable. He doesn't just make easy catches, and make hard catches look easy, he makes impossible catches possible. He gets open in ways that make opposing fans and coaches pull their hair out—everyone in the stadium knows it's going to him, yet somehow he gets open time and again.
Quarterback Matt Ryan has given up on spreading it around to his supporting cast. Per ESPN.com's box scores, Jones has 46 targets on 118 Ryan attempts; that's 38.9 percent of all Ryan throws going in Jones' direction. If Ryan keeps throwing as often as he's throwing, and that target split holds, Jones will see the ball a stunning 240 times this season.
Not only is Jones' unreal production putting points directly on the board, it's setting the table for the rest of the Falcons. He stretched the banged-up Cowboys defense so far that tailback Devonta Freeman had a career day: 141 yards and three touchdowns on the ground, plus 52 yards through the air. Even though the Falcons defense struggled early, Jones led the offense back from trailing 28-14 to register an emphatic 39-28 win.
Of course, Jones and the Falcons have played well before. His talent has been obvious from the second he's stepped on the field. But health, teammates' inconsistency and the general malaise afflicting former head coach Mike Smith's squads have held him back.
Now, in just his fifth year in the NFL, we're finally seeing everything Jones can be.
Things started almost as poorly as they could for Ryan, Jones and the Falcons. The Cowboys scored touchdowns on each of their first two possessions, sandwiched between a Falcons three-and-out.
On the Falcons' second possession, though, Ryan threw to Jones on the first play, and targeted him five more times in the 14-play touchdown drive. The game went back and forth after that, with the teams trading punts, then Cowboys quarterback Brandon Weeden leading a touchdown drive and then Weeden giving it back to the Falcons with a pick.
With just over two minutes to go before halftime, Freeman converted his second short-yardage touchdown plunge of the day to pull within a touchdown, 21-14. However, Weeden and the Cowboys answered right back, marching down for a quick score to restore the 14-point lead.
The Cowboys didn't score again.
The shifty Freeman was too fast for the Cowboys' back seven; he quickly gained 42 yards on two short passes. The Falcons got close enough to kick a 32-yard field goal as the first half ended. At the start of the second half, Ryan targeted Jones four times in a seven-play drive; after a quick Cowboys punt this happened:
The 45-yard touchdown and subsequent two-point conversion narrowed the blowout margin to a field goal's difference—and Jones had lots more left to do.
He gained 35 yards on the next drive, which ended with Freeman's third rushing touchdown on the day. After a huge third-down sack of Weeden forced a three-and-out, Freeman rolled up to full speed. The Cowboys looked helpless to stop Freeman; he seemed to gain yardage in chunks every time he touched the ball.
Of course, Ryan didn't forget about Jones. He threw it to him three more times on the final scoring drive, capping it with a beautifully designed bootleg that got Jones wide-open for the exclamation-point score.
Time and time again, Jones got open, made great grabs, made something out of nothing—all the things he's doing every week these days. As Chase Stuart of Football Perspective noted on Twitter, Jones' last 16 games would be a great season by any standard:
The Associated Press has never given its MVP award to a wide receiver. The Pro Football Writers of America—of which I am a member—has done so just once, awarding Jerry Rice for his superlative (but strike-affected) 1987 season. That's how high the bar is set for Jones to beat out the NFL's big group of great quarterbacks.
But if anyone can rise to clear that bar, it's Jones. His incredible combination of size, speed, hands, body control and determination make him a completely unmanageable matchup for any NFL defense.
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is making a very strong case, putting up massive numbers as he's led the Pats to their own unbeaten start. But Brady's at the helm of the reigning Super Bowl champion, and Rodgers is quarterbacking a team that very nearly faced New England in that Super Bowl. Both teams would suffer greatly if they lost either quarterback.
But Jones has been something different for the Falcons—he's been an icon, a talisman, almost magically leading the Falcons past opponents. Jones, and his impact on defenses, turned a blowout loss to a decimated Cowboys team into a comfortable win.
If Jones' health doesn't again become a factor, and the new-look defense can keep the Falcons within striking distance, Jones will give them a chance to win every game they play. If Jones and the 3-0 Falcons—coming off a 10-32 run over the last two seasons—can keep putting up Ws, they're not only going to run away with the NFC South, but Jones will also run away with the MVP.
Defining "most valuable" is always subjective, but the Falcons are conference-title contenders with Jones, and would be lost without him. He's the most valuable player in the NFL, regardless of position.